In what ways
and under what circumstances can a movie be a resource for
individuals and their thoughts about existential matters?
This central research question has been investigated using a
both quantitative and qualitative approach. First, a
questionnaire was distributed amongst 179 Swedish students
to provide a preliminary overview of film habits. The
questionnaire was also used as a tool for selecting
respondents to individual interviews. Second, focus group
and individual interviews were conducted, with viewers
choosing their favourite movie of all time. In the study
socio-cognitive theory and a schema-based theoretical tool
is adopted to analyze how different viewers make use of
movies as cultural products in an interplay between culture
and cognition in three contexts; a socio-historic process, a
socio-cultural interaction with the world and inner
psychological processes. The viewers in the study seem to be
inspired by movies as a mediated cultural resource,
promoting the development of a personal moral framework with
references to values deeply fostered by a humanistic
tradition. It is argued that these findings support theories
discussing individualised meaning making, developing
‘self-expression values’ and ‘altruistic individualism’ in
contemporary western society.
Film, audience, meaning-making, existential matters,
religion, social cognition, individualization
What is important in life? What makes life
worth living? What do dreams of a good and happy life look
like? These kinds of questions are asked by scholars
investigating people’s worldviews and belief systems in
everyday life (Bråkenhielm, 2001). Watching movies is a
growing habit in Sweden and the consumption of film has
never been as widespread amongst Swedes as it is today
(Hedling & Wallengren, 2006).
Media scholars discuss how media habits are related to
people’s construction of worldviews and how meaning making
is both a social and an individual practice, where mediated
stories are interconnected with ‘ideological horizons’ (Höijer, 2007:
33). In what ways do movies intersect with the ways in which
people in contemporary society deal with the meaning of
life? That is the main point of interest for this study of
film viewers and fiction films as an impulse for meaning
making processes, with a special focus on existential
I distributed a questionnaire among 179
Swedish students at Högskolan Dalarna University College in
2003. The questionnaire was primarily important as a tool
for selecting respondents to thirteen individual interviews
with viewers choosing their favourite movie of all time.
My aim as a sociologist of religion has been
to reach a more nuanced understanding of the complex
interplay between social and psychological processes in
individuals’ meaning-making, related to the construction of
personal belief systems with inspiration from movies.
First of all I have wished to give generous space to
empirical examples of individuals and their ways of
comprehending movies as important aspects of their personal
lives. Secondly, with the help of a socio-cognitive
perspective, I have in mind to contribute to a more
developed theoretical elaboration of film interpretation
processes among viewers.
1.1. Research Questions and Hypothesis
The main research question was as follows:
in what ways and under what circumstances could a movie be a
resource for individuals and their thoughts about
existential matters? I also asked a more theoretical
question: how much are individuals
guided in their interpretations by interpretative horizons
internalized through primary and secondary socialization?
My hypothesis said that individuals with a
religious background, who also have a religious outlook on
life today, would be less inclined to use movies to address
important matters of personal relevance in life, whereas
individuals with no religious background and not
participating in religious activity today would be more
active in using movies for this purpose. This preconception
was formulated from a starting point in studies that
described a historically strained relationship between
organised Christian faith and fiction film. Early in the 20th
century the Roman Catholic Church developed critical views
on the film industry and church members were discouraged
from movie watching habits (Miles, 1996, Johnston, 2000,
Deacy, 2005). This was also an attitude developed by
Lutheran and Pentecostal traditions in the Nordic countries.
My ambition has not been to evaluate films
from a theological or philosophical point of view, as others
have done (Baugh, 1997, Fraser, 1998, Coates, 2003). Neither
was it to conceive film consumption as a ritual equivalent
to the function of traditional religion (Lyden, 2003, Marsh,
2004, Jerslev, 2006), nor analyse mythological structures
in popular culture products (Martin & Ostwalt, Deacy, 2001,
Jewett & Lawrence, 2003). My focus has been on the choices
of a few members of the audience and their wholehearted
embrace of some important movies. I have then tried to
describe and analyze, as thoroughly as possible, their own
perceptions of meaning derived from these films.
2.1. Media Studies
The first of the theoretical sources used in
my study was media studies. The development of mass media
during the 20th century has completely changed
society in a historical process where the production,
storage and circulation of mediated symbolic content have
been established as central aspects of social life
(Thompson, 1995, Kivikuru, 2001, Jansson, 2001a). In a
profound and irreversible way, the development of the media
has transformed the nature of the exchange of communication.
The media is now part and parcel of fabricating webs of
significance and meaning in contemporary society (Thompson
As recipients of media messages we have to
create some understanding of our position, who we are, what
we want to become, or on the other hand what we don’t want
to be (Gripsrud, 1999: 17). The notion of meaning production
is central to most definitions of media reception research
(Hagen, 1998: 61). Earlier audience studies have often been
framed as a textual enterprise, rather than understanding
meaning as something that takes place in the interaction
between a text and specific receivers, or categories of
audience. Over the past decade there has been a noticeable
development in the international scholarly field of media,
religion and culture (Hoover & Lundby, 1997, Hoover &
Clark, 2002, Mitchell & Marriage, 2003). This has also been
seen in the Swedish setting with a combination of
theoretical perspectives from media studies and the
sociology of religion (Linderman, 1996, 2002a,
Lövheim, 2004, 2007, Sjöborg, 2003, 2006).
A special branch of this field is the
interdisciplinary cross-section of film and religious
studies, where a growing number of scholars from different
research areas have shown interest. Rarely, however, has an
audience approach been taken here. Jolyon Mitchell has
summarized the development as follows: “[T]here has been a
rapid increase in the amount of writing produced on
discerning the sacred, religious or theological in film. Up
to this time the vast majority of these texts focus on
either the film itself or the director of the film, leaving
out of the discussion what the audience does with the film”
(Mitchell, 2006: 204). There remains, in other words, a lack
of work done based on empirical evidence of what people do
with films (Marsh, 2006). Some important initiatives have
been pioneering in this direction, such as Martin Barker’s
multinational Lord of the Rings-research project
(Barker, 2007), with Scandinavian participation from the
Danish film scholar (Jerslev, 2006). My study is a
contribution in that vein.
Secondly, I discuss religious change from a
starting point in theoretical perspectives from the
sociology of religion,
where questions are asked about religious change in late
modern society with different characteristics in various
parts of the world. The American situation has its own
peculiar traits with reasonably high levels of religious
commitment (Bellah & Madsen et al. 1985, Roof, 1999, Norris
& Inglehart, 2004). The European setting is different from
this, displaying fewer obviously religious characteristics
(Gill, D’Costa & King, 1994, Woodhead, Heelas & Martin,
2001, Davie, 2002). The question of a more detraditionalized
European situation is addressed, as well as slow shifts in
late modern society towards weakened religious traditions,
more individualized belief systems and a sacralisation of
the self (Woodhead & Heelas, 2000, Ahlin, 2005, Sjöborg, 2006).
The question asked from this perspective is what kind of
role media plays as a resource for shaping people’s personal
In this context I have defined what is
considered to be an existential matter. These topics have
been empirically investigated by a certain branch of
scholars in Systematic Theology studying worldviews. It is
difficult to find an adequate English term with which to
translate the term – ‘livsåskådning' – used among
Swedish scholars, but a number of suggestions have been
posited such as ‘worldviews’ or ‘life philosophy’ or ‘view
of life’ (Morhed, 2000). A view of life consists of a
cognitive element encompassing the individual’s theoretical
assumptions and comprehensive views about the world, an
evaluative element with personal central values and finally
a personal basic mood (Jeffner, 1976).
There are, on the one hand, examples of vague
and abstract definitions of what is considered to be an
existential matter addressing the profound questions of why
we live, why we die and what the purpose of life is (Hartman
& Pettersson, 1980). On the other hand there are quite
detailed definitions listing many topics such as ‘race’,
sex, love, suffering, loneliness, freedom, human conflict,
life and death, guilt, responsibility, human dignity,
euthanasia and abortion (Ronnås, 1969). I have revised 15
topics formulated by Bråkenhielm (2001), to create 10
defined existential matters to make use of in my analysis of
thirteen individual interviews; 1, why we live and die; 2,
purpose and meaning in life; 3, guilt and responsibility; 4,
what is reality?; 5, what is a human being?; 6, what is
love?; 7, the existence of God; 8, what is right?; 9, good
and evil; 10, moral principles.
2.3. Film Studies – Sujet and Fabula
Third, I point to the notions used in film
studies to distinguish between ‘sujet’
This distinction highlights the hugely important recognition
that spectators actively make meaning. We, as audience,
create the fabula in our minds, fleshing out the plot to
form the full story on the basis of cues in the sujet
1997). Bordwell (1985), states that whether
called perceptual or cognitive, organized clusters of
knowledge guide our hypothesis making in film viewing based
on cues of sound, light, editing, camera angles and so forth
in the sujet. The total fable is constructed through the
basis of different schemata or cognitive maps, where the
film’s sujet and style interact in the course of cueing and
channelling the spectator’s construction of the fabula (Bordwell,
In his thesis the Swedish film scholar Per
Persson, argued that this approach should be tested
empirically on what is going on when individuals watch films
and how the viewer’s everyday life works as a cognitive
background for inferences and construction of the fabula (Persson,
2000). This does not come out of the blue, but relies on a
wide range of basic assumptions and personal knowledge and
“as an active perceiver, the spectator is constantly testing
the work for a larger significance, for what it says or
suggests” (Bordwell & Thompson 1997: 73). Within film
studies not enough has been done with empirical ambitions to
address how these processes could be understood (Persson,
2.4. Socio-Cognitive Theory
Fourth, I frame the question about
individuals’ personal beliefs within a theoretical paradigm
of socio-cognitive structures of representations. Here
cognitive psychology is developed in a social psychological
direction. It is used to discuss cultural discourses and how
they are comprehended and treated by individual subjects as
a cognitive process in particular situations (Cole,
Hagen, 1998, Höijer, 1998c). Socio-cognitive theory brings
forth a more nuanced comprehension of “how ordinary people
create and use meaning to make sense of the world” (Augoustinous
& Walker: 141). Within cognitive psychology I have adopted a
theoretical perspective derived from schema-theory to make
use of as an analytical tool for detecting meaning making
processes in the dynamics of the mind. As an audience
researcher I have tried to “identify what could be described
as more general mental/cognitive frames or schemata involved
in the process of media consumption” (Eriksson, 2006:
41). I am following Birgitta Höijer’s approach by
identifying interplay between culture and cognition in three
contexts; 1, a socio-historic process, 2, a socio-cultural
interaction with the world and 3, inner psychological
processes (Höijer 1998c: 169).
2.5. A Theoretical Tool
developed a theoretical model as a tool with which to
analyse my interviews. For these interviews thirteen
spectators chose their favourite film of all time and
discussed its emotional and cognitive impact from their
point of view. I adopted schema theory, inspired by Höijer’s
use of six main schema-categories as basic cognitive
structures through which people comprehend fiction
narratives. They are 1, person schema, 2, role schema 3,
self schema 4, event schema 5, scene schema and 6, story
schema (Höijer 1995, Wahldahl 1998). Person schemas organise
our knowledge of people and their traits. Here we store our
evaluations of other people’s psychology and personalities
and how they react in different situation. Role schemas
organise our expectations of persons with particular roles
and positions in society and of their behaviour in different
situations. Self schemas organise our considerations of
ourselves as persons with particular traits, qualification
and possibilities as well as weaknesses. We also have an
idea of which dimensions we consider typical and important
in our self image. Event schemas organise conceptions of
sequences of events and how things usually happens in life.
Expectations of different content in situations are linked
together in an order building up plans of certain
situations. Scene schemas represent places, the rooms and
streets and buildings in which our daily routines take
place. Finally, story schemas consists of sets of
expectations about the way in which different kinds of
stories proceed (Wahldal 1998: 46, Höijer 1998c: 173).
Theoretical model interpreting film viewing and meaning-
The model is to be understood as follows. The
the input on the screen. The spectator becomes engaged in an
interpretative process, where possible existential matters
are processed through possible schema structures building up
the construction of fabula in
the mind of the spectator and the story is tested for
significance in real life.
In my analysis of the interviews I have asked
three main questions. What sort of existential matters are
actualised by the chosen movie? Through which
schema categories are the matters processed? What kinds of
references are made between the intra-textual fictitious
narrative of the movie and the individual’s own
3. Methodological Framework
I combined a quantitative and a qualitative
approach in two steps. First, I distributed a questionnaire
among 179 Swedish students at Högskolan Dalarna University
College with the aim of providing a preliminary overview of
film habits. The questionnaire was primarily important as a
tool for selecting respondents to the mainly qualitative
investigation. Second, I proceeded with the qualitative
approach consisted of focus group interviews where
discussion centred on comprehension of the science fiction
(1997) analyzing different patterns of
meaning making related to the spectators’ interpretative
backgrounds. As part of the qualitative approach I also
conducted individual interviews with thirteen viewers
choosing their favourite movie of all time. According to
their interpretative background I grouped them as belonging
to one of three categories: group 1, less religious
socialization/practice; group 2, mixed religious
socialization/practice characteristics and group 3,
4. A Questionnaire
179 students responded to the questionnaire
which was distributed in different classes between October
2002 and February 2003. They answered questions about their
film habits, their views on watching movies and their social
background. They were a mix of media students and students
studying literature, history, religion, education and other
courses within the field of social science. When summarizing
their attitudes towards films a majority emphasised, first
of all, the capacity of movies to promote experiences of
strong emotions and the feeling of being deeply moved by
movies. Second, a large number also considered movies to be
entertainment and a way of getting away from everyday life
for a while. Thirdly, an aspect that was also important, was
watching movies as a stimulus for thinking about life and
initiating discussions with friends. Less accentuated was
film watching as a social act which strengthens bonds with
others. Only a minority were interested in films as an
artistic handicraft and a creative process.
An analysis of variables, in search of a
correlation between background characteristics and whether
individuals’ use movies as a resource for coping with
existential matters, did not produce results in accordance
with my hypothesis. I had assumed that more religiously
oriented people would be less frequently represented amongst
those individuals using movies to deal with important issues
in life. My analysis did not, after all, reveal such a
correspondence. Regardless of interpretative background and
ideological horizons both religious oriented and non
religious oriented people were using films as a mean for
dealing cognitively with personal questions about the
purpose of life and what makes life worth living. This
result in step one called for a deeper investigation of how
this could be conceived in more detail in step two,
focus-groups and step three, individual interviews.
5. Interviews – focus-groups and thirteen
In step two, focus group interviews, I
decided to mix individuals with three defined interpretative
horizons in a conversation about the movie
This science fiction movie was especially interesting since
it forced the viewer to construct a fabula from possibly
contradictory cues in the sujet. Watching the movie you had
to decide whether the main character Ellie Arroway – played
by Jodie Foster – ever left earth or not. Did she experience
a close encounter in outer space with an extra-terrestrial
intelligence which materialized in the shape of her father,
or was the whole thing an hallucination, a result of her own
In the two focus groups no pattern in the
individual’s interpretations of what happened in the film on
an explicit meaning level, could be found that followed the
lines of interpretive horizons.
In the first group interview, five out of six held the
opinion that she had had an inner psychic experience, both
more religious oriented individuals and less religious
oriented individuals. In the other group five out of seven,
both more religious and less religious individuals, were
convinced by the opposite alternative that she had made an
actual trip to the centre of the universe and had met
someone in the outer space.
It was reasonable to suppose that when the
participants were constructing the fabula on an explicit
meaning level group cohesion came into play (Wibeck, 2000).
When given the chance to define more freely what the story
was about and how it had touched the respondents personally,
considerably more creative views developed in the groups on
implicit, or even symptomatic, meaning levels
where some relationship could eventually be detected between
interpretative horizons and interpretation patterns. The
most important impression, however, was the great creativity
in moving from fiction meaning to real life meaning. What
was to become personally relevant proved therefore both
unpredictable and interesting.
In the next step I asked the participants to
take part in a more personal interview about “a favourite
movie which made a great impression on you and which had an
impact on the way you look at the world and your personal
experience of life”. All participants in the focus groups
agreed to be interviewed. I analyzed the interviews
according to the questions mentioned above. What sort of
existential matters are activated by the chosen movie?
Through which schema, categories are the questions
processed? What kinds of references are made between the
intra-textual fictitious narrative of the movie and the
individual’s own, extra-textual, life?
Less religious socialization/practice
Kia, 27, talked about
She dealt most extensively with the existential issues of
guilt and responsibility and also with the question of love.
She processed this mainly through a combination of person
schema and self schema cognitive structures. The movie,
about a computer generated dream girl in charge of two
younger boys, reminded her extra-textually of her role as an
elder sister protecting her brothers when she and the
brothers were all in their teens. She felt deeply
responsible for them as her closest and most loved
For Erik, 30, The Last Emperor (1987)
was his favourite movie. He touched primarily on the
question of what a human being is and on matters of moral
principles. He processed this through a combination of self
schema and person schema. Erik talked about the impact the
film had when at age 14 he went to the cinema with his
father. Erik empathised with the child emperor as the
loneliest child in the world. Extra-textually the film
connected to the feeling Erik had in his early teens of
being lonely in his class, abandoned by his friends. The
movie helped to anchor in him a commitment to keep his word
honestly and always to stand up for those less fortunate
opened up the possibility of new types of content in action
movies for film buff Jon, 27, because of its human
touch and the sense of a sincere relationship developing in
the film. Jon was moved by the contact built up between the
hit man and the young girl, which eventually leads to his
self sacrifice, saving her life and avenging the death of
her family. Jon processed matters of guilt and
responsibility and the essence of love. Jon was the only
respondent to reveal almost nothing about his personal life,
processing the issues exclusively through story, role and
person schema and saying nothing about himself.
Radomir, 24, picked
Fight Club (1999) as his movie.
The existential matters addressed in the discussion about
the movie were the issue of purpose and meaning in life and
what it is to be a human being. He processed this mainly
through a combination of person schema and self schema
cognitive structures. Extra-textually it tapped into his own
struggle with being a man in a commercialized society and
the problems of finding an authentic way to express his male
identity in a contemporary Sweden where he felt feminism
For Sofia, 22, The
Matrix (1999 – 2003) was a
trilogy inspiring her in life, making her believe that she
could accomplish more than she really dared to hope for.
When hesitating she thought about the message in the movie
to trust in your innermost capabilities. She touched upon
issues of purpose and meaning in life and the question of
what it is to be a human being. She processed this mainly
through story schema and self schema. Extra-textually she
used the notion of believing in herself when applying for
Group 2: Mixed religious
Madeleine, 25, watched
Dirty Dancing (1987)
over and over again with her friends at the age of 11 or 12
and they all learned the lines and the songs by heart. She
dwelt mostly on matters of the essence of love and guilt and
responsibility. She processed this mainly through self
schema and person schema cognitive structures. She thought
Baby was a perfect role model for someone interested in what
is going on in the world, coupled with a wish to develop as
an attractive young woman. Madeleine struggled with this in
her extra-textual life, trying to combine a political
awareness in life with an interest in gaining an attractive
Victoria, 24, used
1994) as a film to console herself while
longing for her family and her boyfriend when she was
studying at university far from home. She was mostly
occupied with matters about the essence of love and moral
principles. She processed this mainly through self schema
and person schema cognitive structures. She thought that
the film expressed ideal relations between parents and child
and between lovers which Victoria held very dear as
extra-textual moral principles in her intimate
Jakob, 27, chose The Shawshank Redemption
(1995) as a movie incorporating vital moral principles
important to him as an individual raised in a Christian
home, but not a believer himself. Jacob was preoccupied with
issues of good and evil and moral principles and he
processed these matters through self schema and person
schema. He thought the movie depicted a character that
incarnates a true human being acting out the essence of
Christian values such as trustworthiness and altruistic
ideals, but without the rhetoric of Christian lingo. This
was a crucial task for him in life where Jakob perceived
himself to be a good person although he did not share the
The Butterfly Effect
(2004) made a distinct impression on Caterina,
21, in the middle of a life crisis where she eagerly wished
she could turn back time and undo some crucial actions in
the past and thereby change the course of events for her and
her family. Caterina addressed matters of purpose and
meaning in life together with matters of guilt and
responsibility. She processed these matters through self
schema and person schema cognitive structures with an
unusually nuanced understanding of aspects of her own
strengths and weaknesses. Extra-textually the film sparked
her into shaping up her routines and helped her break with
Group 3: More religious
Karin, 33, chose Angel Farm (1992) as
her favourite film. She dealt with matters of good and evil
together with moral principles vital to her. She processed
these matters through person schema and self schema. She
identified herself with the female character moving to a new
place and having to cope with a new set of expectations and
prejudices, an experience which she herself has had first
hand. She also connected to the priest’s role as a mediator
and related this to her own profession as a teacher dealing
with tensions in a small village.
Lena, 24, used the film Life is Beautiful
(1999) as a psychological defence in a very particular
situation when under pressure in her role as a teacher. As a
believer she felt she had been wrongfully criticized, by a
senior colleague, for teaching religion in an unprofessional
manner. Very upset and powerless she used the idea in the
film of the power of imagination to escape the psychological
pressure of reality in extra-textual life. She dwelt on
matters of purpose and meaning in life as well as matters of
good and evil. She processed these matters mainly through
person schema and self schema cognitive structures.
Peter, 32, was impressed by the Lord of
the Rings-trilogy (2001 – 2003) where the main message
for him was the importance of carrying out the task which is
given to you, no matter what. Peter was dealing mainly with
matters of purpose and meaning in life as well as guilt and
responsibility. He processed these matters through person
schema and self schema. He made reference to several
characters in the movie such as Frodo, Sam and Aragorn whose
conviction and commitment, even in the darkest hours,
touched him deeply. This inspired him in his extra-textual
and less dramatic reality with responsibilities for his
family in his role as a father.
For Maria, 26, the blockbuster As It Is in
Heaven (2004) summarized her vision of life. It was an
important impulse for her at a time when she was
reconsidering her upbringing in a Pentecostal Christian
tradition. The film confirmed her own extra-textual critical
feeling that the church has a bad record of suppressing
women in general and sexuality in particular. The film
sparked a vision of emancipation and honest relations in
love and she was uplifted and filled with joy, hope and self
confidence after watching it. She dealt with matters of
guilt and responsibilities as well as good and evil. She
processed these matters through self schema and person
schema cognitive structures.
When summarizing the interviews it was clear
that some existential matters dominated. Questions about
what kind of moral principles should guide your life,
together with what kinds of responsibilities human beings
have towards one another were present in a lot of
interviews, as well as issues of individual purpose in life
and the overarching question of the meaning of life. These
more existential matters of immanent orientation – turn to
life – dominated in all groups regardless of interpretative
horizon. Transcendental issues and questions about what
happens after death, the question of the existence of God
and ontological issues about the essence of reality received
much less attention.
Summarizing the analytical question,
assessing through which schema structures the narratives
were processed, it was possible to detect that most of the
schema structures to some extent were used among the
respondents as a group. But there was a clear emphasis on a
combination of two main cognitive structures in processing
these existential matters; a person schema and a self
This outcome points back to my overarching
research questions. In what ways and under which
circumstances could a movie be a resource for individuals
and their thoughts about existential matters? An overall
analysis brings me to the following conclusion in one
extensive formula. Detailed person schematic cognitive
processes about fictitious characters on the screen and
their role model behaviour are combined by the respondents
with dynamic cross-references to detailed self schematic
introspections about the respondents own characteristics,
related to existential matters at some very specific moments
in their lives. In short, it is my contention that there is
an interplay between culture and cognition in three
contexts; a socio-historic process, a socio-cultural
interaction with the world and an inner psychological
As for the complementary question, here the
conclusion was less clear. To what extent are individuals in
their interpretations guided by interpretative horizons
internalized through primary and secondary socialisation?
The interpretative process was very complex and the results
point in two directions, not inevitably opposing each other.
To a certain extent respondents seemed to be guided by their
repertoire of inherited interpretative patterns in the
constructing of the fabula. At the same time one thing was
obvious when meaning was created in the fabula with
extra-textual references. The meanings were unique to the
individual and transcended what could be expected from
defined interpretative horizons. The individuals were very
creative in constructing meanings on several different
levels simultaneously in unpredictable ways.
How then is it possible to evaluate these
perceivable processes with several examples of respondents
preoccupied with their self image, dealing and negotiating a
socio-cognitive construction of their selves? Does it lead
to individualism and a self centred cult of the ego?
(Rothenbuhler, 2006). That is not the only conclusion
available. Individualism in late modern society is of a kind
which is institutionalized and forced upon the individual as
Beck & Beck-Gernsheim emphasize (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim
2002). They also claim that it is possible to trace forces
in an individualised society developing ‘altruistic
individualism’ where people are coping in creative ways with
structural problems in the society. It is also interesting
to mention Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel’s analysis
of ‘self-expression values’ in contemporary western society,
where human self-expression gives “communal values and
social capital a pro-democratic civic drive” (Inglehart &
Welzel 2007: 6).
My empirical examples of individuals enjoying
movies could be interpreted as being compatible with these
perspectives. The viewers in my investigation seem to be
inspired by movies as a mediated cultural resource,
promoting the development of a personal moral framework with
references to values deeply fostered by a humanistic
tradition, in line with John C. Lyden’s argument of what
film is capable of doing with viewers. “We should […] be
able to appreciate and applaud the positive functions they
perform (conveying hope, catharsis, and a range of
societally supportive values)” (Lyden 2003: 248).
Many scholars from different fields,
including film studies or religious studies, have formulated
the lack of empirical examples of what viewers are
experiencing while watching films. The vast majority of
texts in the field focus on either the film itself or the
director of the film leaving out of the discussion what the
audience actually does with the film (Mitchell 2006). My
study is an example of empirical work on “situated
spectators of flesh and blood out there in the world” (Persson
Culturally embedded values seem to be
expressed and mediated in films and become a resource for
personal belief systems and moral cognitive frameworks on an
individual level. The respondents in my study illustrates
processes where individual viewers are dealing with matters
of human virtues and the dignity of what it is to be human
such as trustworthiness, friendship, responsibilities for
your neighbour, standing up for the less privileged, self
sacrifice and other core moral principles. Individuals as
social beings are, on the one hand, defined socially as
being part of collective, ideologically coloured
interpretative horizons. On the other hand, individuals seem
to transcend the given conditions by constructing
cognitively unique creations of normative and moral
frameworks in ways that empirically underlines Lyden’s
conclusion, that movies proposes values according to which
we can live (Lyden 2003).
With a socio-cognitive perspective and with a
schema,"schema" -based theoretical tool I have in some
detail analyzed how different viewers make use of movies as
cultural products. With the help of cognitive perspectives I
have empirically illustrated how members of the audience are
making part of the culturally provided worldviews, projected
on the screens, personally valid in creative and
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The ways in which the Swedish audience consumes
films has changed rapidly (Antoni, 2007, Ribrant,
2006). Recent developments in digital distribution
have made it possible to watch films at home on
bigger and better screens, on a laptop or even on
the smallest of screens like the PlayStation
Portable. Movies are no longer mainly enjoyed in
cinemas, but via TV or DVD (Ribrant 2006: 125).
I am using ‘existential’ in the first of the two
meanings outlined by the Oxford Dictionary; 1)
relating to existence. 2) Philosophy concerned with
The focus of my research is related to the
construction of worldviews on a personal level in
everyday life and I am not concerned with
existentialism as a philosophical tradition.
Cf. Clive Marsh, “what films do to people and what
people do with films” (Marsh 2004: ix).
I have distinguished between the most basic film
genres such as ‘documentary’, ‘fiction’ and
‘avant-garde’ even if these categories are not
watertight (Bordwell & Thompson, 1997: 42). In my
study the investigation focused almost exclusively
on fiction film. Documentary film was mentioned
rarely and avant-garde film not at all.
The ‘sujet’ is the input on the screen. The
spectator becomes engaged in an interpretative
process, building up the construction of the story
in the mind of the spectator, which is called the ‘fabula’.,"fabula"
I am adopting Rousiley Celi Moreira Maias’
definition of ‘interpretative horizons’.
“[T]he ’interpretative horizons’ or the ‘moral
framework’, given either by tradition or basic
certainties of life, function as an ‘implicit
knowledge’ or as a pre-discursive background
structure from which all thinking, action and
interpretation proceed” (Maia,
2001: s 40f).
Axelson has recently completed his ThD at Dalarna University
College/Uppsala University, Sweden.